Tassie’s Wild, Wild West

On Tasmania’s West Coast you’ll find legendary wilderness loaded with convict heritage, spectacular national parks and historic mining towns.

Ever wondered what the edge of the world looks like? Well, there’s a place at Gardiner Point, near the faraway town of Arthur River where you can see it for yourself. Here, the sea water west of Tasmania is the longest continuous stretch of ocean on the planet. From Argentina the unhindered currents advance more than halfway around the globe until they hit this point.

The coastline is regularly lashed by the gales of the ‘Roaring Forties’, a global wind current that blows around the earth at latitude 40–50 degrees. Wind gusts up to 200km per hour have been recorded on the far North West Coast where the Great Southern Ocean joins Bass Strait. This is a wild, rugged and unforgiving place so it really does feel like you are standing at the ‘edge of the world’.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and some see it as a trophy destination, where they just pull up, take a photo and move on. However, others embrace the harsh natural setting and consider it somewhat of a mystical and spiritual place. If you delve a little further you’ll also discover that the combination of winds, heavy rainfalls and cool climate are critical in sustaining the adjourning Tarkine Wilderness Area which supports a variety of unique plants and animals.

From Arthur River we start our journey along the Western Explorer (unsealed roadway) that heads from the coast to the spectacular Tarkine wilderness. The 447,000 hectare Tarkine Wilderness Area is Australia’s largest tract of temperate rainforest and contains vast forests of mytle, leatherwood and pine trees. You won’t find it on too many maps (it’s not a designated national park) but the region is bound by the Arthur River to the north, the Pieman River to the south, the Murchison Highway to the east and the Southern Ocean.

The Tarkine expanse is a realm of natural treasures including mountain ranges, wild river and cave systems, buttongrass moorlands, and a rugged coastline with long sandy beaches, grassy woodland and coastal heath. Local residents include the platypus, echidna, wombat, bandicoot, possum and glider – not to mention the famous Tasmanian Devil and the spotted-tailed quoll and eastern quoll. The Tarkine also hosts over a hundred bird species, including several rare and endemic birds like the threatened orange-bellied parrot and wedge-tailed eagle. It is also home to one of the greatest collection of Aboriginal sites in Australia.

The Western Explorer is often referred to as ‘the road to nowhere’ and it’s easy to see why. No towns or villages exist on the road itself and we pass just one vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. It’s place where you don’t want to break down. However, the sense of isolation is brilliant.

After nearly three hours of driving we finally reach Corinna; a historic mining town, set in pristine rainforest on the banks of the majestic Pieman River. It was once called Royenrine, which was the aboriginal name for a young Tasmanian tiger.

Inhabited by white settlers in the mid 1870s Corinna was proclaimed a town in 1894, following the goldrush of the late 1800s. During this boom time, the town had more than 30 buildings including the two hotels, a post office, a number of stores and shops, slaughter yards and many residences.

It was far from the calm, peaceful place it is today. Prospector-historian Mark Ireland, who loitered around the west coast in the prosperous days, said it was “The roughest place it has been my experience to strike”. And there were some really rough and tough towns in the west back in those times!

Nowadays, Corinna remains as the only surviving remote historical mining settlement in Tasmania. Visitors can undertake a range of nature activities including kayaking, walking, boating, fishing and bird watching or simply rest up. River cruises can also be taken on the Arcadia ll which is the only huon pine boat still operating anywhere in the world. In 2006 the Arcadia ll travelled to Launceston where she was refurbished, refitted and returned to her original condition. It’s now listed on the Australian register of Historic Vessels.

There are plenty of accommodation alternatives in the Corinna village, including the original Roadman’s cottage, the old pub and sixteen new wilderness retreats built in the original style. Each of the new wilderness retreats is named after a pioneer from the area.

The township is powered by an eco-friendly solar system with back-up generators. The local rainwater is probably the most pure water in the world and all waste is removed from site.

The Corinna Wilderness Experience is one of few Australian tourism products to have achieved both EarthCheck Assessed and Advanced Accreditation under the Eco Tourism Australia rating system. It’s a place where you can really escape from mass tourism and enjoy a true wilderness existence. And best of all there’s no phone, internet or TV!

Our home for two nights is the 100 year old historic pub which has been converted into a guest house. The back door opens onto lush rainforest and quite often a group of pademelons (similar to a wallaby) would appear to feed and scurry about.

Over the years there were plenty of ‘interesting’ incidents at the Old Pub. Apparently, the wildest commotion occurred at the funeral of its publican Gam Webster. Gam had been a pioneer prospector and was a popular host. Over one hundred men trudged into town from neighbouring camps to pay their last respects and few were sober for the burial. The mourners got a bit rowdy and brawling continued throughout the night. The following day the minister, Reverend F.G Copelland, took the law into his own hands in an attempt to restore order – he shut down the bar and kept the key until all the men had sobered up.

During our stay I take the opportunity to explore some of the local rainforest walks. From the township, the Whyte River Walk is a superb example of unspoiled temperate rainforest. With boardwalks delicately placed in wet areas, this track provides easy access to a sample of the rich biological diversity (including colourful fungi in the autumn) and stunning beauty of the river/rainforest ecosystem. The walk takes between 70 and 90 minutes.

A shorter walk from Corinna, the Huon Pine Walk, has recently been upgraded and is accessible by wheelchairs. The Huon Pine Walk, which carries interpretation material on the important local flora, can be completed in 15 to 20 minutes.

From Corinna we catch the “The Fatman” barge across the Pieman River and head further south to Strahan. Nestled on the shores of massive Macquarie Harbour, Strahan is the gateway to the World Heritage listed Franklin–Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. This harbour-side village also has a dark and fascinating history and there are plenty of stories from the days of convicts and pioneers trying to survive in Tassie’s wild west.

Originally developed as a port of access for the mining settlements, the town was known as Long Bay or Regatta Point until 1877, when it was formally named after the colony’s Governor, Sir George Cumine Strahan. The signature Strahan experience is a Gordon River cruise which covers the region’s natural beauty and captivating past. The Grining family operate World Heritage cruises and they’ve been exploring the wilds of Tasmania since 1896. Today, the family still work on the waterways, offering informative tours with state-of-the-art catamaran vessels.

From the town jetty we scoot across the port and pass through Hells Gates; the narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour named by the convicts on their way to Sarah Island. Stopping on Sarah Island we explore some of Australia’s oldest convict ruins. Created to put the ‘fear of God’ into the prisoners of Van Diemen’s Land, this tiny 18th Century British outpost was known everywhere as one of the most appalling and cruel of all the convict stations. It finally closed down in 1833 when the inmates were all transferred to Port Arthur on the east coast.

Soon after we stop to view the high-tech aquaculture enclosures where hundreds of thousands of Tasmania’s famous Atlantic Salmon and Ocean Trout are farmed in the harbour. You’ll even get to taste some on board at the lunch buffet!

We then cruise up the magnificent Gordon River and spend two hours enjoying the serenity of rugged mountains, forested slopes and calm waters. Another short walk is taken along the rainforest boardwalk at Heritage Landing before cruising back to town.

These days, Strahan is an iconic travel destination with shops selling artisan wares and restaurants serving up delicious local produce. There are also plenty of accommodation options. Our friendly hosts (Sally and Mark) at Strahan Bungalows were always happy to share some local tips and point us in the right direction. Hogarth Falls, Henty Sand Dunes and Ocean Beach are all worth a visit.

Strahan is also the destination – or departure point – for the West Coast Wilderness Railway that runs between Queenstown and Strahan. It’s a about a 45 minute drive between the two towns.

Queenstown is surrounded by dramatic hills and mountains and was once the world’s richest mining town. The copper mining and mass logging in the early 1900s created a surreal and rocky ‘moonscape’ of pink and grey conglomerate rocks.

There’s lots to do, from an underground mine tour and local history museum to walks in the nearby wilderness, where you can discover scenic lookouts, waterfalls and relics of the old mining days – or simply stroll the unique streetscapes of the city centre.

Arthur River may claim to be ‘the edge of the world’ but Queenstown’s barren landscape certainly feels like another planet!

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